I wake to the sounds of the jungle. From early morning, chests are beaten, challenging roars are thrown forth and responded to in kind, there are excited monkey noises and the squawks of gaudy-plumed birds. What’s happening? It is Sunday. During the week, the French driver is an amiable herbivore, gentle, thoughtful, obedient, considerate to cyclists, waiting patiently at stop signs when there’s nothing in sight, waiting for you, your bike. On Sunday, especially when aroused by the scent of a motorway, he becomes a snarling carnivore, get out of my way, this is my road. Sunday is Jungle Day. (And I’ve noticed that recently both Ford and Peugeot have introduced, after years of closed mouths, teeth-baring grills on their cars.) De Tocqueville on the French: ‘today the sworn enemy of all obedience, tomorrow attached to servitude with a passion that the nations best endowed for servitude cannot match.’ Roll on tomorrow!
I hurry to breakfast and eat all I can, filling up for last night, and front-loading for the day. I feel stuffed rather than fed, but full. A black couple come in with their tiny, slender daughter, maybe three, with braids pinned across her head, pink ribbons, half asleep, trailing a pink cardigan and wearing an elaborate, pink, many-petticoated party dress, her dress for the wedding that she’s refused to change from, wanting always to be the princess, even asleep, to wake in.
I am beginning today by backtracking north, along the Meridian, to Juvisy-sur-Orge, where there is an obelisk celebrating the Meridian. It balances the one north of Paris, at Saint-Martin-du-Tertre, as the one in the Parc de Montsouris balanced the (locked away) one on Montmartre. French symmetry. I repack my bags to accommodate the tent, and set out. Heading north, I pass through the ‘real’ Fleury-Mérogis, with a busy market in the car park.
Working my way carefully north, at Epignay-sur-Orgue (where Nadja was in the asylum for eighteen months, visited by his friends but ignored by Breton), I come upon a concrete Meridian marker, an 2000, the first I’ve seen since Bollezeele. Beside it a queue of traffic waits impatiently to get onto a motorway. As I pedal slowly past on the inside there are shouts from open windows and hoots. Once it would have been ‘Allez Pou Pou!’, at an earlier time ‘Allez Bobet!’ But it has been so long since there has been a French cyclist of note that all I get is the French equivalent of ‘get off and milk it!’ At least no cans are thrown. Once past the junction, over the motorway that is a writhing, knotted snake of traffic below me, I am into quieter air, the somnolence of a suburban Sunday for those who are staying home.
In Epignay I stop to consult the map on my phone, and a woman asks if she can help. This is unheard of in France. I ask, where is Juvisy? she says, she can’t explain, but this young man will. A pony-tailed, round-faced, fringe-bearded young man of around seventeen steps forward and begins to speak. It is curiously theatrical. It is as if his whole life has been a waiting for this moment, as if he has spent years at this intersection, waiting for someone to ask – where is Juvisy? He explains fully and succinctly how to get to Juvisy, and then how to get to each part of Juvisy. He is word perfect. At the end of his long peroration, he beams. He has nailed it. If he were German, he would click his heels and bow. Being French, he stands smiling, round-faced and pleased with himself, absorbing the adulation. These theatrical moments happen more often in France than elsewhere: here the world really is a stage, and each stands in the spotlight of his own story.
Juvisy-sur-Orge I continue up the road, and arrive not just at Juvisy, but at the obelisk I’m looking for, la pyramide, at the first crossroads. On the pyramid, this: ‘The southern end of the geodesic base from Villejuif to Juvisy, 1670 Picard, 1740 J Cassini and Lacaille.’
In order to survey using angles and trigonometry, there needs to be one baseline, measured with great accuracy, from which all other distances are derived. This 11km line was measured using toise (just under 2m) length rods. On the base of the pyramid is a modern surveying marker, redundant now that surveying is done from satellites. The line disappears under Orly airport. It was the first dedicated aerodrome in the world, opened in 1907 and blessed by the Archbishop of Paris.
Pleased to have been here, at the starting point of the first survey of the Meridian, I turn round, and speed back down the Meridian, stopping at a boulangerie where the proprietor refuses to take the money from my hand, has me put it on the tray that French shops have (that, or a pimpled mat). He drops the change into my track mitt, taking care not to touch.
I return to Fleury-Mérogis. Having failed to eat at Quick the previous evening, I am determined to eat the meal I’ve been waiting for for 18 hours. I tuck into fishburger, fries, a drink. It’s very disappointing.
I have the usual difficulty finding my way out of even so small a town, with more bizarrely short lengths of cycle path, and a promised ‘Green Way’ that disappears after 50 yards. My theory is that these designations are part of a bureaucratic exercise, ‘how many metres of cycle path do you have?’, with no reference to utility. But soon I’m across the N104, which marks the southern edge of the Paris conurbation, and out, into – France.
Beauce It is a sunny, June day. I apply sunblock, but this isn’t the fierce heat of Saint-Martin. And I’m getting used to it, my skin is getting brown.
I’m cycling through rural France, between great open fields of wheat and barley and flax, past private walled domains, through mysterious woods, along a gentle, green river, tree-shaded, shallow, with weed waving, fish holding still against the flow, and patient fishermen, and through neat villages. In one village the communal wash-house, the lavoir, has been renovated. Roofed but open-sided, with a large rectangular stone basin in the middle and rubbing stones around, it was where the women would gather each week. It is the first of several I come upon that have been renovated, and I realise it is one of the French nostalgia points; it was the women’s equivalent of the bar, the place where they could let go, be themselves, say what they wanted about their menfolk. When we lived in France, we incomers were the only ones who used them; the locals were proud of their washing machines, or washed by hand at home so as not to be shamed by their poverty. The tradition of the lavoir seems to be continued by the ladies’ hairdressers, even the smallest village has one, often just a front room. I wonder where the men go, with no bars left in many villages.
In 1940 Irène Némirovsky wrote, in her novel Suite Francais, ‘Life in the provinces of central France is affluent and primitive; everyone keeps to himself, rules over his own domain, reaps his own wheat and counts his own money. Leisure time is filled with great feasts and hunting parties.’ I can imagine it little changed, except that the ‘primitive’ will have the veneer, as everywhere, of contemporary consumer goods.
After a good run on the bike, breathing the clear air and stretching my muscles, I’m just at that pleasant level of fatigue where a break is called for. I stop at a crossroads, in the middle of nowhere.
This is big country, the rich agriculture of la Beauce, large unfenced fields panels of different greens, rippling gold, hazy blue that stretch away in every direction, to woods, more fields, a village steeple a distant punctuation mark. Blue sky with puffy clouds. Soft wind. Big country so rare in England, so often come upon in France. I break off a piece of baguette and eat it, with discs of saucisson I’ve cut against my thumb with my Opinel knife (I’ve kept it sharpened all these years, a knife I could never, these days, get through airport customs, that every Aveyron countryman has in his pocket). And another piece of bread with a finger of dark Poulain chocolate pushed down the middle (I got this from the Autodidact in Sartre’s La Nausée, before I ever came to France). I drink Orangina, and eat a peach. This is it, this is la France profonde, I’m here.
The Piper And then bagpipes begin to play. Fifty yards away, in the middle of nowhere, a young man in a kilt and a soldier’s bonnet is playing the bagpipes. For me? I rush over. Are you Scottish, what’s your name, where do you live, why are you here? I ask, in a rush. He is thirtyish, bearded, self-contained. He is French but of Scots descent. I hear his name as Michael Aye. He drives out from Étampes to be alone and play his bagpipes. I take his photo, shake his hand, and pedal on, accompanied by ‘Flower of Scotland’. I wave in that slow-motion way, like in Betty Blue. I’m in the world of Betty Blue, and all the films I’ve seen set in a perfectly-realised France. Now I’m in la France profonde.
A few miles on, at the edge of Malesherbes, in this rural middle of an immense nowhere, is a vast park of sleeping red behemoths. The giant lorries that crisscross the continent. Red. ‘Norbert Detressangle’. So this is where his beasts snooze, when they are not thundering along the motorways of Europe and duelling with Eddie Stobart’s! There are new motorways everywhere in France, often N and D roads reclassified to exclude cycles, making route-finding difficult. They are full of these container-sized lorries that drive so close they become road-trains.
Straight roads At Malesherbes I turn south west, to Pithiviers, ten miles along one of the dead straight roads that lowland France is noted for.
Ascribed variously to the Romans, Louis XIV or Napoleon, according to Robb most of them date from the 1740s when new, long-distance roads were built, lined with trees. The familiar ten metre-wide avenues of plane trees, often painted white, slipping past the tarmac at night like metronomic ghosts, around which French writers and starlets regularly wrapped themselves in the 1950s, were their nineteenth-century successors. I’m never comfortable on these roads, they are too narrow for cars to pass if there’s traffic coming the other way. But at least there’s a run off at the side, as they are rarely kerbed. A Frenchwoman told me how unnerved, driving in England, she was by the hard edges, the kerbs on even rural English roads, the sense of confinement. French roads just peter out at the sides. Just as their arable fields are rarely fenced along the roads. When I first encountered this, it felt like an invitation to enter. I couldn’t understand why the grapes weren’t stripped from the vines by passers-by, the cabbages taken. Now I think it may be a result of the Revolution, when so many rural domains were liberated from aristocrats and the church, and the ‘land of France’ became ‘ours’. Whereas in England this was the time of enclosure, the planting of the hedges that are so ‘typically English’, land as ‘property’, ‘keep out’, ‘trespassers will be prosecuted’. Also there is the French city-dwellers’ ongoing connection to the land, to their pays, a connection lost very early in England in the Industrial Revolution. At heart many French feel themselves country folk. The word paysan is a title of sturdy independence, with none of the negative connotations of our word, ‘peasant’.
I cross the Meridian, marked with a splendid twenty-foot high stone obelisk, cube upon cube, a tapering needle, a stone ball, and a lightning conductor. Inscribed ‘Meridian of the Paris Observatory, established by Cassini in 1748’. There are open fields all around, but no modern marker, no avenue of trees … As I park my bike to photograph it, a concourse of French classic cars, including a couple of Simca Arondes, motors slowly past, all pampered and polished and proudly driven. All these ‘classics’, I realise, were built in my lifetime.
Pithiviers A very tall, oddly-shaped church spire announces Pithiviers. I have no reason to come to Pithiviers, but it’s a convenient place to stop, and it has a camp site.
I know two things about Pithiviers, one of little interest, the other disturbing. It is the name of a sweet, puff-pastry pie with almond-paste filling. And it was the location of an internment camp, second in importance only to Drancy near Paris, where Jews were gathered, separated from their children, and transported to Auschwitz. Irène Némirovsky was arrested in Vichy France by the French police in 1942, and deported from here to a concentration camp. She died two months later.
I cycle up to the main square. It is a wide, windswept space. I imagine it in winter, the bare plain, the icy winds sweeping in from the east. Even in June I’m finding it a wintry place.
A man approaches, speaks. I have by now realised that, with my reflecting bands, baggy shorts, white hair, and overloaded bike, I am, in rural areas, a phenomenon, to be spoken to and bon-courage-ed, even bon-chance-ed. He asks where I’m going. I say I’m looking for Camping Lilas. Non, non, he says, shaking his head emphatically, you’re looking for Camping Laas, and it is four scenic kilometres (four scenic kilometres! I’m tired, and any number of kilometres isn’t ‘scenic’) along the turn-off at the bottom of town. I’m surprised, as my information has it close to town. I freewheel down through town, find the turn off, signed Camping Lilas, and come to it 200m down the lane. What did he mean? An impish figure who appears, gives me false instructions, and then disappears? But what if I had carried on those four kilometres? Was I being guided to a magical, life-changing place? Would the journey itself have been transformative? Was he the spirit of Hermes, who both guides and leads astray …? And how to know which?
I check in at the campsite. The owner sits in his little hut, signs me in, takes my €7. How far have I come? I tell him. His eyebrows quiver, ‘vous êtes très fort’, he says. ‘Ou très fou’, I counter, with a self-deprecating grin. He acknowledges my false-modesty with a tilt of the head, ah, the English. And for him the edge of Paris is another world. Although quite young, he is an old-fashioned Frenchman you can banter with. Or maybe I’m just getting into the French mode. I ask where I might eat in town. After a considered pause, he says, definitely, le Relais de la Poste. Pitch anywhere, he says.
It is basic, to say the least, this my first campsite, with ancient showers, and no toilet paper. (I find this is common; I guess campers pinch it.) But, there are plenty of trees, it is close to a burbling river, the pitches are grassy, and they have electric points. One of my worries about camping was access to electricity, to charge phone and ipad, and for my drinks-making water heater.
Now to put up the tent. There are no instructions. But fortunately I watched the instruction-video in England. And it proves, with its bendy fibre-glass poles, surprisingly easy. All my kit fits down each side, leaving a coffin-shaped space in between, for sleeping mat and cross-armed me. Missing only a dog at my feet to resemble a knight’s tomb.
I make tea, put my iphone on charge, and sit at the mouth of my tent, quietly. Tea finished, I lie on my back on the grass, looking up at the sky. Clear blue. But already fading into the sequence of colours that will arrive, at last, at the deep blue-black of night. Illuminating the trees is a light that can’t decide if it is lemon or peach, having the tang of one and the sweetness of the other. How can colours have taste? But they do. A French river ripples and birds sing. A sixty-mile ride, tiring but not exhausting, the energised tiredness of a good day’s exercise, through the countryside of central France. Paris, the Paris area, that I crossed yesterday, left only this morning, is not so much far away, as in another dimension. It happened, the change, when I met the bagpiper. Then I entered France. I’ve had a nice, relaxed chat in French, my first. And I am approaching the perfect culmination of a day cycling in France.
I will go to le Relais (I’ve already shortened it to denote my familiarity with it), introduce myself on his recommendation, ‘Ah, Gaston,’ she will say fondly, and I will relish, enjoy, be enraptured by an evening of Madame’s home-cooking bliss, slow-braised meat in a rich sauce, fluffy creamed potato, fresh vegetables, with just enough wine to soften the edges and enrich the experience. Followed by homemade tart. Another piece? I couldn’t. Sad face. Oh, if you insist. I wash, change, cycle up to town.
But le Relais de la Poste is the standard country-town hotel, €70 for a room, €20 for a menu that is too long for the dishes to be freshly cooked. I would eat alone in overstuffed and echoing silence. To avoid these hotels (imagine the smug, provincial, middle-aged French couples who stay at such places) is exactly why I’m camping through the middle of France, where there are no anonymous cheap chains, few youth hostels.
As I’m looking at the menu, four young Africans come swaggering across the square, boombox on a shoulder, oddly threatening in this little French country town. Time for Plan B.
In France, my favourite eating places, after the increasingly-rare family restaurants, are North African. I return to the one I’d passed on the way up. Check the menu. Yes, among the list of fast foods, there is cous cous. And mutton cous cous. Slow food.
It arrives, an enormous mutton shank – that muttony tang, so different from lamb! – a large plate of cous cous, a huge bowl of vegetables floating in stock. I fill my plate once, eat, then fill it again. The first plate satisfies my hunger. The second fills me up, as you need when cycling. I eat myself to a standstill, and feel gloriously full. It may not have been perfect – the mutton, while well-flavoured, was not quite falling off the bone – but it is good, straightforward food.
The place was empty when I came in. When I leave, it is packed, with a couple of large ladies perched on and overflowing small chairs, wondering what to have from the baffling menu, and a milling crowd at the takeaway counter which the proprietor and his assistant are dealing with at high speed. As I eat, drink my beer, people-watch, I am at the still centre of a whirling world.
I freewheel down the hill, and prepare for my first night camping.
I fall asleep to the dream that I am in my own sweet corner of la France profonde, slipping warmly into my sheet sleeping bag in a pair of shorts as the last light fades from the sky, and roosting birds serenade me from the softly whispering trees.
Robb, The Discovery of France p223.